Whatever You Call It
ONE MIGHT BE TEMPTED to use the term “chicken fried” — or maybe not. Whichever, the pretty amazing, fruit-stuffed French toast served during weekend brunches at The Patio on Lamont Street in Pacific Beach has a crispy-crackling coating that sets it apart from all the other French toasts going around in brunch-crazed San Diego. The name is a tad misleading, since cream cheese stuffs the egg-soaked brioche and the fruit poses on top. But it’s all delicious and nicely gilded by a little pot of maple syrup and a feather-light cloud of Chantilly cream. Hunky biscuits that look like rough-hewn rocks but enclose tender interiors are essential to the considerable pleasures of dishes as diverse as the lavish seafood Benedict, plush corned beef hash and a rich gravy made of sausage and bacon.
BUSY “Bs” BUCK THE BARRAGE OF BARS battering San Diego’s restaurant rows. If your bailiwick is any eatery that serves attractive fare in surroundings that suggest Martha Stewart, Gaslamp’s new Bailiwick should charm your socks off. Refreshing as an ocean breeze, the look is “The Hamptons version of a cocktail party brought to San Diego,” Chef/partner Konstantin Plavnik says. Floral-print wing chairs, a three-sided mega sofa for socializing and tall tables facing the whitewashed brick wall behind the bar mingle under a high, Wedgwood-blue ceiling. An antique, claw-footed bathtub at times brims with iced Champagne bottles. An interesting man, Konstantin at age 12 emigrated with his parents from Russia to Brooklyn, commenced cooking at 14, spent six years in an elite U.S. Navy unit and returned to cooking at 26. Thoughtfully creative, he presents grilled oysters with thyme-flavored sake and jalapeño brown butter and deconstructs eggs Benedict by focusing vegetables and scrambled eggs around creamy Burrata cheese he soaks overnight in chili oil. Among bubbly options, $15 “endless” glasses probably sell best; but some Gaslamp grandees drop $600 for Louis Roederer Cristal 2005. … Buona Forchetta brings a sparkling Roman sensibility to the corner of Beech and 30th streets and, since Alchemy anchors the opposite corner, possibly launches South Park as the hippest destination in central San Diego. Lively and fun (arrive early or wait), it’s an affordable pick (quality wine by the carafe!) for one-of-a-kind dishes like stuffed scarpinocc pasta, nice to share before so-authentic pizzas. … Bali Hai, beloved for views and Polynesian charm, generously hosts when service people and their families lunch after Friday graduations at Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Very, very nice. But how many new Marines choose Chef Dion Morales’ Hawaii-esque Spam and pineapple fried rice as their first off-base chow after 14 weeks of camouflage cuisine?
DAREDEVILS ABOUND in San Diego kitchens for better or (often) worse, displaying derring-do by concocting dishes we often don’t want to eat. Dashingly different, Humphreys Restaurant Chef Paul Murphy spent a week aboard a Navy submarine teaching alternatives to franks and beans, which evidently ride high under the waves. Murphy may repeat the experience in 2015, when he’ll have been tickling Humphreys fanciers with stylin’ food for a dozen years. He makes basics better, like jumbo lump crab cakes that he says are “90 percent crab, a little egg, some roasted garlic aioli — but lots of crab.” They’re meaty lead-ins to meatless triumphs like pungent, earthy Forest Floor Pasta dressed with chanterelles, morels, shiitakes and black truffle-walnut-basil butter. It glows.
DON’T DINE AND DASH at two delightful Asian eateries that broaden horizons for local chowhounds. The simply named Pho Noodle Bar in a new residential building at Sixth Avenue and Cedar Street is comfortable, welcoming, impressively affordable and possessed of a talented kitchen that soothes jaded taste buds with 16 traditional Vietnamese pho (pronounced “pha” and based on fresh rice noodles) and startles them with truly spicy chicken curry. … Good Indian food remains elusive hereabouts, but the chefs at Midway Drive’s smallish, unassuming Taste of the Himalayas evidently don’t know this. Nice flavors, sometimes volcanic, but only by request. Himalayan spice-and-herb mixes distinguish marinated, clay oven-cooked “choila” preparations of lamb and chicken. Don’t want naan? Don’t be silly; the fresh-baked version with garlic and cilantro is irresistible.
THE MENUS AT HOMEGROWN MAINSTAY Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza & Grill have evolved in the 20-plus years since Sami Ladeki first plied pies at Pearl and Draper in La Jolla. The chain lately has revived many original recipes. And while tasty attractions like mini duck tacos and chopped chicken salad tempt, pizzas remain the focus. Executive Chef Jeff Moogk knows the essentials of perfect pies, and offers appreciated options like good gluten-free crusts. The artisan thin-crust pies (not GF) soar, especially topped by a combo of raclette cheese, fingerling potatoes and smoked bacon that brings French home cooking to San Diego.
DISH: By David Nelson • Photography by Martin Mann
Pictured above: Bali Hai's crispy ahi tuna, planter's punch and Spam pineapple fried rice.